Frank Ocean: channel ORANGE (Album Review)

Frank Ocean tweeted that shortly after releasing his controversial open letter, which basically took over the internet when it came out, causing his follower number to hit 1 million. This tweet basically characterizes who Frank Ocean is: humble, humorous, purposeful, real. All of these things come out in a strong way in his new album, channel ORANGE, which dropped last night as a surprise after he made his debut television performance on none other than the Jimmy Fallon Show, the same show where his Odd Future cohorts made a controversial debut several months before.

The Odd Future affiliated singer has been making moves in the music industry for some time, but he really made his mark when he released the highly acclaimed mixtape last year, nostalgia, ULTRA. The tape helped him sew his place into the consciousness of the music blogosphere as an alternative R&B singer who experiments with sounds and topics not found on contemporary artists’ work. He continued this trend by appearing twice on the very high profile collaborative album between Jay-Z and Kanye West, Watch The Throne. Since then, most have been waiting to see what Frank would do next.

Ironically enough, the release of channel ORANGE is reminiscent of Watch The Throne in that the album’s release was steeped in hype and controversy and that it didn’t leak to audiences prior to the official drop, which almost all albums in this day and age do with little exception. Much like Jay and Kanye’s WTT, it felt like more of an event than an album release, but for a different reason. The reason that this feels like an event, as I referenced earlier, is because of Frank’s coming out to such a large audience, and it will likely be remembered as such when people look back at 2012.

But to the album itself. To begin, the transitions. Listeners of nostalgia, ULTRA will pretty quickly begin to draw comparisons between that project and channel ORANGE, simply because of the transitions on both. On channel as well as nostalgia, there are recorded sounds of nature, animals, people chatting, cassette player clicks, vintage video games, movie monologues, and so on, drawing a thread between each track. There is a certain warm quality to these transitions that are unique to Frank and lend to the cohesiveness of his work. That being said, the projects are pretty different sonically, as well as mood-wise.

Frank did not to make many obvious concessions when it came to song structure or melody progression on channel which was pretty brave considering how big of a release this album has been ramped up to be. Don’t take that as a bad sign though. In fact, it is pretty remarkable how Frank remains highly compelling as well as catchy without sticking to a formula with his songs. No track here is predictable. At all. And each track is that much stronger because of it. Couple that with his uncanny honesty, his respect for the art of music in general, and some quirky nostalgic sentimentalities, and you essentially have Frank Ocean’s appeal on this album. It isn’t a formula all that different from nostalgia, ULTRA, but Frank has grown a lot as a person and a songwriter, and it benefits the music in a big way.

I’m hesitant to use the phrase “album highlight” because every song has its own personality and unique qualities that make it great. Nearly every song to me was a highlight, from the lyrics, to the lush and intricate instrumentation, to Frank’s fantastic vocal abilities and innovative songwriting. The mixing is also worth mentioning. I can’t recall the last time I’ve heard such sonically resonant and satisfying vocal layering. It really adds a lot to the thick and illustrious aesthetic being crafted, notably on tracks such as Sierra Leone, Monks, and Crack Rock. 

Frank just has this uncanny ability to write a melody that sticks with you, regardless of what the subject matter may be. Of course, you have songs such as Thinking About You and Sweet Life, which have some of the catchiest sounds in R&B as well as gentle but heartfelt lyrical content. But even songs with heavier lyrical weight have a way of sticking with you. Super Rich Kids, a song about teenagers whose lives’ are wasted on suburban nihilism has one of the catchiest refrains I’ve heard in a while:

“Too many joy rides in daddy’s jaguar, Too many white lies and white lines, Super rich kids with nothing but loose ends, Super rich kids with nothing but fake friends”.

The song Crack Rock, which is about a crack fiend alienating himself from his friends, family and ultimately society due to addiction, is in itself addicting as a song. The light and sparse production is in such contrast to the subject matter that it is presented in an almost cartoonish way.

Frank’s songwriting has always been different than what most expect of his genre, but he definitely stretched the boundaries of song structure on channel ORANGE to a new creative height. His structure to some songs on this album resemble hip hop tracks in which a rapper will spit bars after bars throughout an entire track without a discernible hook. For example, the track Sierre Lione’s doesn’t have a solid structure, but Frank is playing off of his own layered vocals by performing in multiple styles in a way that is extremely memorable, almost as if he’s conversing with multiple alter egos.

And, of course, Bad Religion must be mentioned. A lot of artists nowadays attempt to expose their souls to the audience, but Frank’s courage and honesty is unparalleled on this track. As most have heard by now, he (ambiguously) touches on his bisexuality on the track, and to come out like that to such a major audience takes a kind of courage and audacity that hasn’t really existed in the past. That in itself, not to mention how well the song is written and performed by Frank, is harrowing and worth respecting.

When you come down to it, there is so much to say about this album. I’ve already typed way too much for a single review, and I haven’t even touched on the breathtakingly epic, 10 minute long Pyramids, Andre 3000’s stellar guest spot on Pink Matter (not to mention that Dragon Ball Z reference? Fuck YES), or Earl Sweatshirt’s verse. John Mayer even makes a brief but effective instrumental appearance on White. 

Most people are going to approach this album simply because of the controversy behind Frank’s sexuality and his coming out so close to the album dropping. And that is fine. As long as they are making their way to the music, I won’t argue. Ultimately, his sexual preferences aren’t the most important thing about channel ORANGE, but unfortunately, it is going to be very difficult for people, myself included, to judge an album that is being thrown out in such a unique context. Is this album bigger than the music on it? Is the fact that Frank came out so publicly in our harshly judgmental society more important than what he is saying on the album? These questions are not going to be able to be answered until later when we can look back and reflect on the event. But for now, all I know is I love this album, and I really look forward to this man’s future in music.

Verdict:

4.8/5

Favorite Tracks: Sierre Leone, Sweet Life, Super Rich Kids, Crack Rock, Lost, Monks

Least Favorite Tracks: Pilot Jones

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One Response to Frank Ocean: channel ORANGE (Album Review)

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